Keeping the faith in Thanksgiving Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler, editor   
Thursday, Nov. 26, 2009 -- 1:00 AM

editor's view by Mary C. Uhler

What’s ironic about the secularization of holidays is that both Thanksgiving and Christmas have religious origins. Obviously we’re more familiar with the story of Christmas.  However, the Thanksgiving holiday has many religious aspects, too.

Story of the first Thanksgiving

We’ve learned a little about the first Thanksgiving in 1621, when the Pilgrims and the Indians gave thanks to God for a good harvest. We know that celebration must have included prayers, because the Pilgrims were a deeply religious people.

The Pilgrims who settled in our country were fleeing from religious persecution in England. Research reveals that they actually first left England in 1609 and travelled to Holland. However, they considered the Dutch way of life frivolous and their ideas a threat to their children’s education and morality. So they left Holland and travelled to the New World (see

On September 6, 1620, the Pilgrims set sail for the New World from Plymouth, England, on a ship called the Mayflower. On the ship were 44 Pilgrims, who called themselves “saints,” and 66 other people, whom the Pilgrims called the “strangers.” The long trip led to many disagreements between the saints and the strangers. After land was sighted, a meeting was held and an agreement worked out called the Mayflower Compact, which guaranteed equality and unified the two groups now called the Pilgrims.

Help from the Native Americans

The first winter was devastating to the Pilgrims. It was very cold and the snow and sleet were exceptionally heavy. Less than 50 survived. With the help of an Abnaki Indian named Squanto, who had learned English on his own voyages across the ocean, the Pilgrims were taught how to plant corn and other crops. The harvest was very successful and the Pilgrims had enough food to last through the winter.

The Pilgrims had much to celebrate in 1621. The Pilgrim Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by all the colonists and the neighboring Native Americas. They invited Squanto and the other Indians to join them at a celebration, which lasted three days.

Calling on God

It was the third year after the first Thanksgiving that showed a deeper religious aspect of the holiday. The third year brought a spring and summer that was dry and hot, with crops dying in the fields. Governor Bradford ordered a day of fasting and prayer, calling on God to help the Pilgrims.  Soon after rain came and saved the crops. To celebrate, November 29, 1623, was proclaimed a day of thanksgiving. This date is believed to be the real beginning of the present day Thanksgiving.

The custom of celebrating thanksgiving after the harvest continued through the years. During the American Revolution, a day of national thanksgiving was suggested by the Continental Congress. In 1817, New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom. By the middle of the 19th century, other states also celebrated Thanksgiving.

President Lincoln’s proclamation

However, it wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln officially proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving. It is interesting to read Lincoln’s proclamation. He mentions several times our reliance on God. Remember, his proclamation came during the time of the Civil War.
Lincoln said, “The Year that is drawing to a close has been filled with blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

He went on to describe the severity of the Civil War and the loss of lives, yet he said the country continued to grow in population, strength, and vigor. “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

The president then said, “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are  sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

So there we have it! The purpose of Thanksgiving is first and foremost to give thanks to God for the blessings he has given us. Let us all remember to keep the faith in Thanksgiving by attending Mass, taking time to pray, and certainly offering prayers at our Thanksgiving dinner. A blessed Thanksgiving to all!